Surprise: Being a mother is very hard work

Pediatricians offer hints for managing tough times with that cute new baby

March 30, 2003|By Linda H. Lamb | Linda H. Lamb,Knight Ridder / Tribune

New babies can generate weeping and wailing at decibel levels you thought were only possible at airport runways and Aerosmith concerts.

And your child might do some crying, too.

You say this isn't what you expected when you were expecting? Welcome to the sisterhood. It seems even the stylish women of HBO's Sex and the City aren't exempt from the sticker shock new moms often experience.

On an episode, Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) lamented about her constantly crying newborn:

"He's not sick, he's not hungry, he's not teething; he just wants to scream. I'm doing everything I can, but I can't please him.

"If he was 35, this is when we would break up."

Pediatrician Robert Walker watches Miranda's misadventures in motherhood with some frustration, as when she stands at the crib entreating her wailing son to communicate more effectively.

"I find myself yelling at the TV: 'Pick the baby up!' " says Walker, who lives in South Carolina.

Helpful hints from Walker and others who work with new moms might help you through the tough times when you're not sure what you fear most: Going back to your paying job, or staying home with this perplexing little person.

Crying -- yours or baby's -- might not be the biggest problem.

You might feel overwhelmed and isolated. You might fear you won't be the mom your mother was. You might fear you will be the mom your mother was. And the fact that this motherhood business has a pretty steep learning curve can come as a surprise.

"It's much more of a challenge than most women expect," Walker said.

Walker said it's common to see lots of stress in new moms who are career women like Sex and the City's Miranda, a lawyer.

"Often with highly educated women, they're used to being in control, and this baby just doesn't do what they want," he said. "It rocks them like nothing else in their lives has."

Carefully honed negotiating skills may work with difficult colleagues, but they're useless with a squalling newborn. And a new mother faces challenges such as breastfeeding at a time when she's tired and frazzled.

"We are very supportive of breastfeeding, which although it's natural, doesn't come naturally to a lot of mothers," Walker said.

Anyone who wants to improve her parenting skills can do so, he said, but the first step is to go easier on yourself: "You're not expected to be perfect; this baby is not something you can control."

Walker said if he has three patients who are first-time mothers, ages 20, 30 and 40, he can predict who will feel the most anxiety.

"By far, the 40-year-old is going to have the most difficult time," he said. "It's a tougher adjustment, because she's had more years on her own."

He said younger mothers can go without sleep more easily and often manage "not to sweat the small stuff."

Denise Altman of Irmo, S.C., is another expert on postpartum stress. She counsels women about it -- and has experienced it.

Altman and her husband, Jim, welcomed twin daughters two years ago. They already had a 2 1/2 -year-old. And there was one more source of stress for Altman, a registered nurse and internationally certified expert on breastfeeding.

"I'm a lactation consultant, so I had to successfully breastfeed twins," she said. "I put a lot of pressure on myself."

Visitors and houseguests can make things worse, even when they want to help.

" 'Helping' doesn't mean sitting around holding the baby," Altman said. "You need people to run the vacuum, do a load of laundry, bring in a meal."

Not long ago, Walker noted, pressure was even worse for women who stayed home with their babies. As others dropped their kids in day care and went off to "have it all," full-time moms were derided as underachieving frumps -- "non-working" women.

"Now, I think the pendulum has sort of swung back the other way," Walker said, as more people recognize it's good to devote more time at home to kids when possible.

Regardless of their mothering decisions, he said, women can limit their stress by realizing that each baby already has a personality. When dealing with a feisty one, it might help to read a book such as The Strong-Willed Child by James Dobson, he said. Also, remind yourself that the next stage of childhood may be easier for you to handle.

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